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What is Your Mission?

Maybe “mission” isn’t exactly the right word since we all have missions and values and vision statements. We all want to provide student and staff support and we all value student development and we all have a vision of fiscal responsibility. Vision and mission statements have their place, but we were challenged recently to say what our department is known for. Our students will recognize academic and programmatic support and great service, but they cannot recite our mission.  If you could capture what your students think of you, what would it say?

What is your signature? What do people think of when they hear your name? If you had two or three words to guide all of your work, a snapshot of your core principles, what would they be? Some famous taglines you may be familiar with are “That was easy” (Staples), for us old-school people who remember what a wrist watch is: “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking” (Timex), and “Fly the friendly skies” (American Airlines).

We had a group travel to the University of Texas in Austin and the University of Florida in Gainesville recently and met with their staff and toured their facilities. Impressive operations in theory and practice but one of the key things we came away with was how impactful a clear and concise message can be in guiding the department.

At the University of Texas, one message was “Wellness and Diversity.” It permeated everything they did and was so ingrained we were really struck by simplicity of the statement. If you look up the values, focus, mission and vision for UT you will find the following information:

Focus on an enhanced campus-wide culture of wellness

Respect for ideas, values and contributions of others in a diverse workforce

One of the takeaways from Florida was Learning & Innovation.  Not in the sense that you are allowed to travel to the next ACUHO-I conference, but in a much larger sense, what your responsibilities are, what are you doing to advance yourself and your organization, how rounded and versed you are in every facet of your department. It was impressive and daunting to see and you can recognize the commitment at all levels of the organization to do exactly what they say they are going to do.

As we go about our strategic planning and day-to-day operations we will begin to think about what will guide us in everything that we do.  It is our hope that eventually the guiding principles will be evident to casual visitors, guests, staff and students. It will be as easy and as natural as breathing.  It will take some time to reach a maturation level but with the talented and dedicated staff, we will definitely get there. We are not clear exactly yet where “there” is yet, but recognizing the problem is a good first step!

So what three words describe your organization?  Bold. Fun. Reputable. Prestigious. Academic. Development. Friendly. How is your story being told?

World-Class Customer Service

Over the last year, our department has spent a great deal of time discussing the vision of our department in the future, and specifically, what it means to provide world-class housing and dining environments in our residence halls and dining centers. How do these world-class options make us the top choice in student housing for the students who choose to attend our university?

As someone who works on the housing operations and facilities side of the house, I am constantly asking myself what it means to provide world-class customer service. Is our housing application process innovative and world-class? Are our facilities clean and welcoming? Do I pick up trash outside of our office when I see it, to help maintain a world-class landscape? Asking if I am making world-class decisions in providing services to students is like a personal check and balance to ensure that I am serving students and other constituents to the best of my ability.

I intentionally end every student staff meeting by asking the following question: “What world-class customer service have you provided this week?” Getting buy-in on our departmental discussions of becoming world-class from student staff is essential to the success of the vision. Student staff are usually the ones providing front line customer service, and are therefore the best examples of how world-class our organization truly is.

Asking about the world-class customer service they have provided in the last week is a way of holding myself and my student staff accountable to this vision for our department. At times, it has lead to wonderful discussions on how the staff have made mundane tasks like giving a resident a package into a celebratory event worthy of receiving a high-five, and how someone provided personalized attention to a student frustrated with our room change process via a follow up phone call. I am continually blown away by the commitment these undergraduate students show on a daily basis to serving their fellow students. These discussions allow everyone to buy into our process of creating a culture of world-class service. They also continually push me to ensure that I am providing world-class customer service in my interactions with students and their families on a daily basis.

So how are you providing world-class customer service on your campus?

Is Our Work Life “Frittered Away” By Data?

One segment of my position as the Director of Housing Operations at East Carolina University is the coordinate our room assignments team and our department’s technology efforts. To do these jobs, I coordinate a number of student data processes. The amount of data we have on students is almost overwhelming. Using that information is often a challenge due to the problem of data integration.

Data integration has been an important issue the last two decades and will continue to be so, as we increase the amount of information we have about our students. In some ways it has improved: more and more data can be shared between systems. It is more complicated, however, by the number of systems used by a housing operation. Even on campuses with enterprise-wide student data systems, the number of programs to support specialty needs such as housing assignments, parking, student judicial records, and other needs can mean many different systems each with their own databases and data integration challenges.

Our department uses a range of databases and programs- some based on our campus and more and more based in the “Cloud.” If you have not heard of “The Cloud” or “Cloud Computing”, it is the practice of storing data in an outside data center so it reachable (as well as backed up and stored securely) from any location with web access. In most cases the program or application to access the data is also web driven, therefore any computer, smart phone or device with a web browser can access the “cloud based” application and data.

The upside of these cloud services is that you don’t need specialty programs, you can run your own databases (with the required staffing) and in many cases the cost is more manageable because the services are shared over a number of clients. However, the data is stored separately from the data in your other systems, and your department will need to work with your software providers to make sure that data remains safe and secure.

A recent example of the challenge of data integration was a request from my supervisor of report of the GPAs and some housing assignment information of the students removed from housing for drug related judicial reasons. This seems to be a simple request… until you realize that each data element is stored in one of three different systems. The room assignment data in our housing management system, the judicial information in our campus wide- “cloud based” student judicial system, and the GPA information is in our enterprise wide student data system. So the next time you tell your database manager or assessment staff- “Quick, can you pull a report on…” remember it can be a herculean task.

On my desk is a paperweight that was given to me by a vendor at an ACUHO-I Conference. It has the wisdom of Hendy David Thoreau on it in the quote: “Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” Simplify is a challenging mantra since we are living in an increasingly complicated environment. If we can’t use all this information to make our work easier or even “less complicated,” what value does it have? We also need to make sure those who need it have easy access to the data, in simple to use formats. If we expect our staff (from hall coordinators to directors) to use data in their decision-making, we need to make sure they have access to the information they need, know how to analyze the information they have access to, and know how to use that information in the decision making process.

One of my professional challenges for 2011-2012 is to look at our data systems and see what we can do to simplify or streamline systems in terms of staffing time. In some cases this  might involve trimming the number of systems, and in others automating how the data moves and can be shared between these different systems. I’ll keep folks posted on how it goes!

The Res Life Catchall

April tends to be a busy month for everyone in student affairs (duh), but I think sometimes it is busiest for residential life folks. Why, you ask (or maybe not, if you have the same experience)? Because while we’re busy preparing for closing and dealing with the stress-relieving judicial incidents, we’re also busy supporting all of our colleagues at their events. It is hard for me to count on one hand, or even both hands, the number of requests I have gotten for my staff to work events, staff tables, get students to programs or just be some place to provide extra staff.

To be fair, I always encourage my staff (and try myself) to attend or work as many of these things as possible – after all, these are our students, too. There’s nothing bad about them seeing us outside the halls as a resource and support. And I always figure there’s a karma piece in the mix, too – when we help our colleagues, they will be more likely to return that favor at some future point.

Except this doesn’t always happen. Instead, we continue to get called on because we’re here, because we’re an easy access point to students, because we answer the call. I’ve seen my staff get asked to do things until they’re at their breaking point – because they’re doing all these events on top of roommate conflicts, on top of dealing with behavioral disorders, on top of 2 a.m. fire alarms and emergency calls.

I’ve seen this trend on other campuses on which I’ve worked – the misunderstanding of what residence life staff actually do. Believe it or not, we’re not all fun and programs – there is a lot of hard, dirty and unseen work that we do to help provide our students with safe, comfortable and supportive living and learning environments. We’re not “dorm moms and dads,” and our jobs are far more than 8 – 5.

How do we start to educate other student affairs folks on what res life really entails? How do we get them to understand that yes, it absolutely is normal to job search after two years at an entry-level res hall position because of the high pressure involved? And possibly most importantly, how do we get these colleagues to understand that our students are also very much their students? That they have a responsibility to provide services to these students as much as we do?

Have other res life departments seen this dynamic in play on their campus? How do you deal with the “Res Life Catchall” and still support your students? I’d love to hear your ideas on reaching out to colleagues and other student affairs departments.

Getting Services Centered

Many things are in the works on the Michigan State University campus. A number of our work functions have been centralized, and more may do so in the future. These changes create opportunity, but like any change they also can cause some issues. Employees are concerned that jobs may be lost for the sake of efficiency. People have to adapt to new roles and new environments. There may be increased expectations on the group of employees that is centralized, and this comes at a time when results may be the hardest to attain. Simply producing the same results as before may be difficult at first.

I’ve found myself thinking of the future and wondering if, when the euphoria of creating something new and shiny subsides, the tedious work may bring down morale. Employees may begin to snipe at each other simply because stress in increased. People are feeling pressure to produce, and the level of trust among  co-workers has not yet had a chance to take root like the relationships of the past. Managers will be tested by those they supervise because, well, that’s what we humans do. And don’t get me started on the costs for starting up such endeavors! Read more

Supply and Demand

Some of you may have no idea what I am talking about. Schools with greater demand for on-campus housing than the supply they have are in a very enviable position. While they may not be able to satisfy every student that desires to live on campus, they can enjoy predictable income and manage expenses more thoughtfully.

Other schools, like Michigan State University is on the wrong side of the economic supply and demand equation. Since we have a surplus of housing available, we are faced with the dilemma of actually recruiting and trying to retain more students to live with us. Because we have a freshmen living requirement (with some exceptions for locals), we have a pretty good idea of about half our resident population.  The other half we have to sign up to live with us… it is entirely optional to them. With a plethora of off campus housing that we compete with for these students, we expend a considerable amount of time, energy and money trying to lure the students back for at least one more year. It is a complicated model to operate in.  Consider the following:

  • Off campus units may allow pets
  • Off campus units may be less expensive
  • Off campus units may have easier parking nearby
  • Off campus units may have fewer rules to abide by
  • Off campus units may have newer, more spacious properties

So we are faced with some significant challenges to offset these perceived advantages. We try to communicate all of our best features to both students and to parents who may still have considerable influence on which living environment will be best for their kids. Some of the advantages and message we try to convey to our target audience include:

  • Students who live on campus do better academically.  They graduate in less time and have a higher GPA. I can’t attest to the causation… maybe students who choose to live on are a special sub-set of students who will perform better academically anyway. But there is definitely a proven correlation between academic performance and living on campus.
  • Location, location, location. Walk to class and work and get extra sleep. Be close to campus academic support units and health and wellness programs. No need to have a car payment.
  • First class dining, all you care to eat, nutritious and delicious. Yes, students may be able to eat off campus cheaper, but a diet of Ramen and cereal is not healthy or satisfying.
  • No hidden fees, cable, Ethernet, water, electric and heat all included. Some halls have fitness rooms and there is ample lounge and meeting space available.
  • Safety and maintenance on staff. In fact a number of issues seem to arise at these off-campus communities that have so few rules. I can’t say every complex is the same, but the parties are wilder, larger and more out of control than anything that would ever happen on campus. I always encourage parents that I speak with to be very involved in their kids living choices.

As we embark on signing up students for next year, we survey, market and advertise the advantages to living on. The pressure financially is there because even as we face increased competition from off-campus, we are embarking on once-in-a-lifetime renovations to a number of our facilities. New meal platforms, infrastructure improvements, safety features, game rooms and convenience stores all play a large part in making us more attractive.  These are expensive but well worth it as we see demand in residence halls that have never before housed returners and traditionally have been assigned as a last resort only to freshmen. That makes it an exciting time for us on campus with the thrill of victories and sometimes the agony of defeat. Meanwhile, we continue to brainstorm any and all ideas to retain our students in the housing system.  I hope you will share some of your best ideas for retention or renovations that have really made your on-campus housing options pop!

Combating Sticker Shock with the Added Value recently shared a list of the ten most expensive college dorms (their word, not mine) in the United States. Topping the list was Sarah Lawrence College in upstate New York, where room and board can cost in excess of $13,000 annually.  The article explains the competitive nature of campus housing, including the upgrades and outsourcing to private companies that many universities are utilizing to remain competitive.

Throughout my two years at Indiana University South Bend, our staff has been asked repeatedly to describe the add-value of the on-campus experience. With more than a dozen apartment complexes in a five-mile radius of campus (and no residency requirement to help fill our beds), we often have to remind ourselves that we are selling an experience rather than a product. For a low-cost living arrangement, we may not be the cheapest game in town. For higher levels of academic success, a supportive community, and connections to campus, we’re the only game in town. But that doesn’t always sway students and parents when they see our rates.

How do you articulate the add-value of your on-campus housing, particularly when asked to compare it with less expensive off-campus options?

What To Build, And Why

Thanks to this economic slump (to put it mildly), construction of new buildings has slowed, after nearly stopping for a period. Thus, we haven’t had much about construction on here in a while. But we will surely build again, so it’s a good time to think about the topic in the abstract.

Here’s an essay considering if it’s absolutely essential to have all the buildings on a campus match each other. This is a long-running debate. There’s problems with doggedly following a single style and equal issues with allowing a sort of architectural anarchy to take over. The happy medium, however, is difficult to achieve, especially when time, money, expertise and hindsight are limited.

What’s your campus policy on architecture? Did anyone from housing have input on it? How has this impacted your buildings?

What’s In a Name?

A few weeks ago, a post on dormitories vs. residence halls generated lots of interest. A story I found online made me think of a different sort of naming issue: When the name of a campus building–a residence hall, for example–belongs to someone whose viewpoints are less than savory. The University of Texas is one institution that’s facing this problem, but I’m sure they aren’t the only one. Simkins residence hall is named after William Stewart Simkins, a former University of Texas professor but also an enthusiastic Ku Klux Klan organizer and promoter. Some people on the campus feel the name should be changed. Others feel that while Simkins’ views on race were repellent, he is part of the university’s history and views such as his are part of the country’s history. Also, most students don’t know who William Stewart Simkins was; all they know is Simkins the residence hall. Have you faced this dilemma on your campus? How was it resolved?

PS: Simkins being mostly forgotten aside from the residence hall with his name made me think of this piece, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. (My inclusion of it here is not meant to malign the condition of Simkins residence hall or any other structures on the University of Texas campus!)


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

You Were Asking: Emotional Support Animals

A member asked me if we knew of any institutions that had made specific accommodations for “emotional support animals.” I couldn’t find any institutions that had done so (let us know if you have), but I did find a number of policies on the subject. I’ve posted what I found (which is only a selection of what is out there). Most institutions only allow service animals to live on campus; i.e.: animals that have been trained to assist their masters in specific ways: seeing-eye dogs, mobility-impairment dogs (who can open doors and fetch dropped objects, among other tasks); hearing dogs and seizure alert dogs. In some cases, this list also specifically includes psychiatric service animals and social signal dogs, who support people with autism.

Generally, according to my research, emotional-support animals, which have not been trained for their tasks, but are emotionally supportive because that’s what animals provide for their owners, are not allowed on campus. The reasons are numerous; allergies, cleanliness (where does the litterbox go?), and the fact that a residence hall room isn’t the best place in which to confine a cat or dog. Emotional support animals are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so it isn’t legally necessary to provide them access.

What are your policies on this? Have you had any appeals? How did you handle them?

Read more

OMG, It’s the Salary Survey!

Yay! Many thanks to Azfar Mian and the rest of the folks at the University of Florida information technology department for gathering and compiling the information.

Results of the salary survey can be sorted by country, state, position, and institution type (public vs. private).

Current salaries are reported for:

  • Chief Housing Officer
  • Chief Residence Life Officer
  • Chief Administrative Officer
  • Chief Business Officer
  • Maintenance Operations Supervisor
  • Custodial Operations Supervisor
  • Assistant Director for Residence Life
  • Coordinator for Academic Initiatives.

Base salaries are included for:

  • Residence Director
  • Area Coordinator
  • Graduate Hall Director

The Cost of Housing

U.S. News & World Report recently released a story on the cost of housing for various colleges & universities. This story reports that when looking at the total cost of a school, the cost of housing should also be carefully examined. By looking at the cost and the amenities, families should be able to weigh their options with housing.  The story acknowledges various reasons for the discrepancies in prices around the country. These range from real estate costs to the type of housing provided (apartments, suites, etc.).

The story also acknowledges it is not only  amenities  such as fitness centers and computer labs that add value, but programmatic offerings such as living-learning communities. So, this makes me ask the question, should buildings with amenities such as faculty-in-residence and living-learning community cost more than residence halls without those amenities?  Can we put a monetary value on the residential experience itself? Should the bricks and mortar be the determining cost factor? What are your thoughts?

See the full story here.